Lobbying: the political influence in USA

Thomas Nogris, Translated by Thomas Bourvic
5 Février 2016

The US Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that lobbying could take part in election campaigns up to 60 days before the election, strengthening even more the rank of interest groups on the political scene. Here is an outlook on the mysterious universe of lobbying, less than one year prior to the upcoming US presidential election.

A meeting between Barack Obama and the businessman Warren Buffett - Credit Wikipedia Commons
A meeting between Barack Obama and the businessman Warren Buffett - Credit Wikipedia Commons
In France and many other countries, the time changed to daylight saving time on the 25th October. In the USA, the same time change occurred 4 weeks later. The difference is due to two instances of lobbying by the barbecue and golf industries.

This funny story shows the importance of lobbying in the United States. The National Rifle Association, Sierra Club, Blue Cross and Blue Shields are all lobbying organizations having a decisive influence on the US legislation. J.M Berry - researcher at Tufts University- and C. Wilcox - from Georgetown University - list about 600 lobby organizations “having an active desk in Washington” out of a total of 20,000 lobbying organizations in their book “The Interest Group Society”. The number of lobbying organizations almost quadrupled between 1950 and 1990. More than 3 billion dollars was spent by lobbying organizations in 2014.

The birth of lobbying

One must go back to the end of the 18th century to trace the history of lobbying and understand the origin of its influence. On 22nd November 1787, James Madison - one of the Founding Fathers and 4th President of the United States to-be - published an essay called Federalist No 10. This text is part of a series of writings arguing for the ratification of the future Constitution and refers to the management of factions, i.e. groups of individuals who share a common purpose in various interests: social, economic or intellectual.

Two options are presented by Madison: either banning the influence of factions on politics or allowing it and enabling private interests to influence the political game. He justifies the second option by explaining that “the quest for the satisfaction of personal interest is rooted within human nature.”

The goal is to reconcile the personal interest of citizens, federalism and democracy by allowing the actions of private organizations because the influences will offset the generation of laws portraying a social compromise. This would also enable the population to express themselves more often than only during the presidential election organized every four years.
The former lobbyist Jack Abramoff- Credit Alex Wong
The former lobbyist Jack Abramoff- Credit Alex Wong

An activity provoking many doubts

Despite the initial will, it actually was overrepresented by companies. According to Berry and Wilcox, this situation is the direct result of the “growing interventionism” in the economy by the US government and the augmentation of regulations since the 60’s and 70’s. Companies and industrial groups - worried by the consequences that could affect their businesses - intensified their lobbying at the expense of other social interests. So much so that the general view on lobbying has deteriorated over the past decades.

The media coverage of some of the scandals does not help improve their image. The Duke Cunningham, William Jefferson and Jack Abramoff affairs are some examples of the scandals that have happened during the last decade. The scandal surrounding the latter was covered by the media at an international level. Condemned in the mid 2000’s for corruption, Jack Abramoff explains in his recently published book how he used to buy senators’ votes.

Some university researchers tried to measure the relationship between money and power in the fight for dominance in Washington. In the book ‘Lobbying and Policy Change, who wins, who loses, and why’, Frank Baumgartner conducted a study which was supposed to measure the impact of different lobbying techniques. The results show that money is not always the decisive factor for the success of lobbyists regarding a given problem but, generally speaking, the financial resources determine the capacity of a group to last and organize its actions.

Lobbying remains intimately linked with financing. The main objective of a lobbyist is to mak his worries known to the political agenda, to influence the decision making, whether at an executive, legislative, federal or State level.  Their influence can also be applied to block the decision-making process. Therefore, influence is created on the long-term by forming strong contacts with politicians and often accompanied by financial benefit relating to electoral campaigns.

The influence of a lobbying organization is not proportional to its size but rather to the financial resources of the organization. This phenomenon, which Mancur Olson Jr calls the logic of collective action, highlights particularly strong and resilient lobbying organizations. For instance, the National Rifle Association is extremely active, despite a minority position regarding the free circulation of firearms.
Barack Obama at a campaign meeting in North Carolina in 2008 - Credit Jim Young
Barack Obama at a campaign meeting in North Carolina in 2008 - Credit Jim Young

The impossible reform of the system

During his candidacy speech in 2008, President Obama assured his intention to battle against the strong influence of lobbying. He affirmed that “lobbyists and special interests brought the government into a game that only they can win” and that he wished to take over and keep the control over the government that lobby organizations “think they have”.

However, the lack of change following his election in 2008 along with the links maintained by the President with some lobbying groups show the difficulties in reforming the political system.

It is also preferable for successive governments to ensure control of activity and to regulate its practice. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was introduced in 2002 to control advertising investment during electoral campaigns: only a limited and declared amount of hard money contribution is allowed.

The adaptations following the regulation show once again the power of lobby organizations. From now on, they choose to invest via NGOs, to which contributions are not limited. Moreover, the use of soft money could resume after the ruling on Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission by the Supreme Court in 2010 about a film regarding Hilary Clinton.